Looking for a Breakthrough? Keep Working

The history of art is a history of artistic breakthroughs. Consider these significant achievements:

  •  Scientific perspective
  •  Oil painting, and then acrylics
  •  Abstraction (Gasp! Art doesn’t have to be a window on the world?)
  •  Photography
  •  Collage (Huh? Glue paper on top of paper??)
  •  Constructed sculpture (rather than carved or modeled)
©Deborah Webster, Bubbly. Mixed media, 36 x 36 inches.
©Deborah Webster, Bubbly. Mixed media, 36 x 36 inches. Used with permission.

My Breakthroughs

My first artistic breakthrough came in 1974 when I rendered a blue jay and cardinal in oil pastel. I’m an artist, I thought.

I wasn’t looking for a breakthrough. I didn’t even know what one was at that young age. I was just trying to make a pretty picture that my grandmother would like.

I had another breakthrough in college when I realized that I liked my art history classes better than my painting classes. Again, I wasn’t looking for a breakthrough or to change my major. I was merely trying to make it through another semester.

My biggest breakthrough came in 2001-02 when I listened to artists who were looking for help with their careers. I could never have imagined this line of work that has been so rewarding.

What Needs to Break?

©Arianna Lin, Intimation of Landscape
©Arianna Lin, Intimation of Landscape. Oil on paper, 30 x 22 inches. Used with permission.

The dictionary defines a breakthrough as …

     … any significant or sudden advance, development, achievement, or increase, as in scientific knowledge or diplomacy, that removes a barrier to progress.

I might emphasize the words significant, sudden, and removes a barrier.

“Breakthrough” implies that something has to be destroyed so that something new can be created.

If you are looking for a breakthrough in your art-making, your art career, or in your life, consider these possibilities:

  • Do you need to break any bad habits that prevent progress?
  • Do you need to break patterns of action (or inaction) that aren’t serving you?
  • Do you need to break clean from any negativity you’re feeling about yourself, resentment toward others, or pessimism about your future so that you wake up each day happy to be an artist and to be alive?

Be Open to Change

Breakthroughs are earned, but they rarely happen when you’re looking for them.

It's impossible to time your breakthrough: I think I'll have a breakthrough tomorrow. Nope. It doesn’t work that way.

Though it might be possible to sense one ahead: I feel like I'm working on something big. I'm not sure what it is yet, but I'm excited about the prospects.

Breakthroughs happen as a result of doing the work and being present during the process. And you must be open to change. Keep working and stay open so that you can make necessary adjustments when your breakthrough strikes.

Consider the following breakthroughs that ignited change.

©Kathleen Piercefield, Give a man a fish / teach a man to fish.
©Kathleen Piercefield, Give a man a fish / teach a man to fish. Collagraph and monotype, 16.5 x 23 inches. Used with permission.

Picasso had a breakthrough when he first came across African art.

Helen Frankenthaler’s breakthrough came after a trip to Nova Scotia, where she had painted numerous watercolors of the rocky seascape. Upon returning to New York, she spread her canvas on the floor and applied paint diluted with turpentine.

Faith Ringgold was looking into shipping her art when she realized that if she just painted on fabric, without the support, she could roll it up and easily ship it in a tube.

Evan Sturm attended Art Biz Breakthrough last year and discovered that his hotel was less than one mile from the very shipping company he needed to get his handcrafted furniture across the country. Boom! Breakthrough!

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Your Turn

Share a story about a breakthrough you’ve had in a comment below. What had to break in order for that to happen?

What needs to break in order to make big progress in an area where you feel stuck?

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10 thoughts on “Looking for a Breakthrough? Keep Working”

  1. I think breakthroughs can more easily come when we pave the way through working hard, in a meditative way, or lightening the pressure on ourselves in a “chipping away” sort of way. We all want our breakthrough right now, yes? That is a lot of pressure to put on ourselves and doesn’t present the right atmosphere for it to happen anyway.
    I find that if I chip away at things, one or two little items at a time, then it seems less overwhelming and gives me time to think about it as I go, and adjust. My life is overwhelming at the moment w/eldercare, job, etc. so I don’t see any other way forward anyway.

  2. Just a couple of breakthroughs happening when I realized I could make what I loved doing into a career and that people supported me in doing so! Also learned at Breakthrough last year that many, many artists had the same struggles that I did….and we celebrated together!

  3. I would love to put a link to my latest breakthrough on here now – but i feel like it would be spamming. so i will just explain it.

    i have been learning how to make websites so eventually i can use this technology as a new medium to make art.

    In order to become a master of something it apparently takes 10 000 hours of focussed attention – So I am doing 10 000 hours of website making in the form of 1 website a month about my art, sent out as an email newsletter (its a full time job)-

    So its a business, and these websites are structured and serve their purpose as vehicles to market my art. they are not ‘works of art’ , but each month i learn a little more about how to use the scripting languages to do what i want

    This month i have created my first attempt at a work of art (something that just exists to be beautiful, and not to make money from or serve a purpose). I have turned my art into animations for my favorite poem, with each line on a separate page with a different animation so you click through to read ….

    It may not be perfect, but i feel it is indeed a breakthrough on my long term goal –
    I’m excited

  4. I’ve noticed that when I’ve had what I would consider “breakthroughs,” two factors have invariably been present:

    1. I have been spending lots of hours in the studio doing my work.
    2. I’ve stepped back a little from the intense effort of achieving a particular goal and am allowing myself some time to play, improvise, experiment, think outside the box, etc.

    The times when I’m not striving for a “masterpiece” but simply striving…seem to be the ones that result in those wonderful, lightbulb-going-off-in-the-brain moments.

  5. I am going to call this stage a “pre-breakthrough” breakthrough….say that five times fast? In my work-life I spend a lot of time helping people clarify the steps to get their business off the ground, figure out the budgeting and the tactical steps that need to be taken and then come up with a game plan. My job is very “tactics” oriented and I sometimes struggle with the bigger picture grand strategy stuff. To do all this, I have to be objective about their business. Something I have not been able to be with my own work. Recently, however, as I’ve been working with another artist on a business venture, I’m beginning to see my own work and business in a new light. One that feels more objective and less mired. I catch myself trying to almost talk myself out of it from time to time but it’s getting easier to go with the flow and start to look at my company and my work as a serious business that has a future. I even wrote my first mission statement for my own business and I didn’t immediately discount it.

    Sorry to ramble but it’s an exciting thing to be able to think of my company and myself in a professional way for once.

  6. I was painting a mural on an eggshell base coat and I sanded it to make highlights after it had been airbrushed. I was surprised to find the exact stone texture I wanted came up because of the raised eggshell bumps. It became the one of the ways I do building stone now.

  7. Many years ago I was making ceramic objects about life in Wyoming, where I lived, and about the environment and my worries for the survival of wildlife. My most successful pieces sales-wise where large ceramic “cowboy boots” designed “for” the crazy people who were coming to the state for the previous energy boom. Unfortunately there was little market for them in Wyo, but they were selling well in Santa Fe and galleries in the east. BUT, they broke in shipping, and even shippers agreed there was no way to ship them for the price they sold for.
    Totally discouraged, I went for a walk out on the prairie, and thought despondently “I might as well be making art for wildlife, instead of about them”

  8. Makes me think about my husband and exercise – he expects a break through in a week – in shape, the work out is easier, etc. Poor guy – it’ll probably be 6 months of daily work to get there. (Is that long?)

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